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Review Round-up: Endgame Genius or Tedious?

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Complicite’s new production of Samuel Beckett’s 1957 existentialist play Endgame opened last night (15 October 2009, previews from 2 October) slightly later than originally planned – and with two different leading men, Mark Rylance (appearing in between his stints in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem) and director Simon McBurney, stepping in for Richard Briers and Adrian Scarborough who withdrew at the start of rehearsals (See News, 11 Aug 2009). The limited season at the West End’s Duchess Theatre continues until 5 December.

Set in a bare, partially underground room, Endgame finds a wheelchair-bound Hamm (Rylance) passing the time by ordering his servant Clov (McBurney) to move him around, fetch objects and peer out the window for signs of life, while his bin-dwelling parents Nagg and Nell look on. Miriam Margolyes and Tom Hickey co-star as Nell and Nagg in the four-hander.

Endgame was last seen in the West End in 2004, when Matthew Warchus directed a cast led by Michael Gambon and Lee Evans at the Albery Theatre (See News, 15 Dec 2003). The new Complicite production is directed by McBurney – with Marcello Magni, Douglas Rintoul and Ian Rickson all listed as associate directors – and designed by Tim Hatley, with costumes by Christina Cunningham, and sound by Christopher Shutt.

Based on the verdicts of overnight critics, if you’re a fan of Beckett, you could be in for a treat. In enthusiastic four-star reviews, Endgame’s champions declared that the “linguistically sensitive” poetry of Beckett has been “given brilliant expression” by director McBurney, “the greatest theatre-maker of his generation”, teamed here with Rylance, the “greatest actor”, who has once again surpassed his own “genius”. However, those in the middle were left “strangely unmoved” by the production and Rylance’s “oddly lightweight, non-magisterial” Hamm. The fiercest detractor, the Daily Mail’s Quentin Letts, had no problem with Rylance’s “performance of characteristic commitment” but still struggled to stay awake during the “stupendously boring play” of “tedious self-pretension”.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) - “A recent director of the play described Samuel Beckett's Endgame as ‘Laurel and Hardy in hell’, but the new Complicite production by Simon McBurney is neither very funny nor very hellish. It is grim and grimy all right ... but this greatest of all Beckett's plays ... fails to strike out in any truly tragic dimension. Despite the best efforts of Mark Rylance, an oddly lightweight, non-magisterial Hamm, the production seems to have been punched of its initial intentions... There is a poignancy and silliness, veering between soul-strafing sadness and startling absurdism but ... what is most missing is Beckett's grinding, grounded humanity. Complicite rattle the bones but muffle the heartbeat.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) – “While Simon McBurney's Complicite production has its merits, it left me strangely unmoved ... I admit its theatrical power. And there are many things to admire in this production. McBurney plays Clov, not as a comic Chaplinesque figure but as a man angrily resentful of servitude. The incarcerated Nagg and Neil are superbly played by Tom Hickey and Mirium Margoyles. Their mutual dependence is both comic and touching. The problem for me is Rylance's Hamm... Even when he utters a cry of despair, he undercuts it with a bathetic effect and, although he conveys Hamm's restless dependence, he sacrifices the terrible music of Beckett's prose. The production itself, through Paul Anderson's lighting and Gareth Fry's sound design, suggests we are watching a world edging into darkness. But, without a monumental performance the play never achieves its potentially tragic status.”

  • Paul Taylor in the Independent (four stars) - “This is a brilliant Complicite production of Endgame. Simon McBurney ... is the greatest theatre-maker of his generation; Mark Rylance is the greatest actor. Now, playing respectively Clov and Hamm, they are together at last in a remarkable interpretation of this warped vaudeville double act... Rylance's Hamm has a vast repertoire of actorly effects and wiles ... and the character's terminal frustration and tragic core are registered in a marvellously innovative moment at the end. How many times can this acting genius ... succeed in surpassing himself? McBurney's crippled servant Clov is more a foil to Rylance than the full counterweight you ideally need. But give the guy a break. He's had to direct this production in very difficult circumstances and he's done it superbly.”

  • Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (four stars) – “‘Nothing is funnier than unhappiness’ says the legless old woman in Samuel Beckett's apocalyptic play and ... in Complicite's production, unhappiness does provide comedy. Beckett is the most linguistically sensitive of writers, and amid the play’s remorseless asperity there’s poetry — given brilliant expression by director Simon McBurney, who imbues every blighted element of the drama with a flicker of humour. Mark Rylance brings mercurial fury and a haunted bittersweetness to the role of Hamm. Seated throughout, he nonetheless gives a performance of kinetic intensity. His modulations are adroit, though occasionally a bit immodestly telegraphed. The design, by Tim Hatley, is a masterpiece of bleakness ... Yet even as Beckett reduces the world to a dungeon where mankind totters towards the end, he seems to imitate that art is the richest verification of our being imaginatively alive. Beckett described Endgame as ‘rather difficult and elliptical’. He wasn't joking. Some, inevitably, will complain that next to nothing happens, or that it's too desolate. Nevertheless, it is not easy to imagine a much better production of the play than this one.”

  • Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail (one star) - "Samuel Beckett ... obviously knew Endgame was a stupendously boring play and took precautions to keep his audience awake. This Beckettian nightmare makes Waiting for Godot look positively mainstream and giddy. An old man called Hamm (Mark Rylance) spends the entire 100 minutes in a Cyril Fletcher-type leather armchair. Two metal dustbins stand in one corner. Hamm's servant Clov (Simon McBurney), spends the entire show on his feet. Lucky him to be kept on his toes... Fifteen minutes in, I was fighting to stay awake... Throughout the stalls, tongues smacked on lips and eyes were rubbed. Hamm also keeps blowing a whistle at regular intervals. All part of Beckett's thoughtful service to keep his audience awake. It is, I believe, a common technique of torturers... Mr Rylance delivers a performance of characteristic commitment - mercurial and full of distinctive tics. But otherwise this show is a dog of tedious self-pretension.”

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